When We All Work Together We Change Lives, the United Way!


Listen to this week’s Money, I’m Home podcast with Kim Ritz, Heart of West Michigan United Way’s vice president of donor strategy & engagement!



00:06 Lynne Jarman-Johnson: Money, I’m Home. Welcome in. I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson with Consumers Credit Union. And Kim Ritz is joining us today. She is the marketing and vice president of donor relations for Heart of West Michigan United Way—something that’s near and dear to our hearts at Consumers Credit Union. Kim, thanks so much for being with us today.

00:26 Kim Ritz: Thanks, Lynne. I’m excited to be here with you.

00:28 LJJ: So this is a busy, busy time, and I cannot think of a time that United Way is needed more than right now.

00:37 KR: Now, more than ever, the work that United Way does in this community for the agencies and the partners that we work with is critical. Absolutely. I mean, we know that before COVID struck, 37% of our Kent County households, they’re already working hard, but they were struggling back before COVID to make ends meet. We know those numbers are higher. The calls we’re getting in through 211 are growing significantly, and we know that more people in this community need our help.

01:08 LJJ: Tell us a little bit about 211. This is a number that’s set up that people can actually call to receive help from United Way.

01:17 KR: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve been in the community. 211 call center takes calls. We can send individuals if they need help with housing, they need help with food, all kinds of referrals in the community that people are looking for help. If they’re looking to volunteer, call 211, and they’ll direct individuals to where they can find some help.

01:38 LJJ: What is interesting about United Way is it truly collaborates with so many organizations, not only the organizations themselves with very specific needs that the community has, but then also that volunteer side of United Way, of people being able to volunteer in those organizations and through United Way. Tell us a little bit, Kim, about your history and how you started with United Way. That’s when I first met you years and years ago.

02:08 KR: Absolutely. Lucky me, too. So, sure, I mean, I am at United Way now. Interestingly enough, I started my career at United Way, and I’ve had the opportunity to work in the non-profit sector ever since. I also worked for Hands of Hope, which is an international non-profit agency that does work for children in Vietnam. From there, I had some work at the YMCA here in Grand Rapids, and now I am back at United Way.

02:39 LJJ: So, Kim, when you look at the unbelievable good that happens on a day-to-day basis, you must be really so proud to be able to bring the story of United Way out into the community in many different ways. I mean, when I think about when we first met, everything is so different, and how you communicate and how you tell your story now.

03:04 KR: Absolutely. And, honestly, Lynne, I’m so humbled to have the opportunity to come back to an organization, really, that I believed in since the start of my career. I mean, for me, United Way is the place; it knows how to bring people together to make our community stronger. And I think the beautiful thing about it is, it’s individuals from all walks of life, all backgrounds, from boardrooms to factory forge, you’ve got partner agencies and grant recipients. And we know it just takes everyone working together to make a difference. And for those of us that have been in United Way for a long time, stop me if you’ve heard this one, because a lot of people will talk and say, “Yeah, it starts like this. There was a woman, a priest, two ministers, and a rabbi, and they were hanging out together.” And it sounds like a joke, but truly, back in Denver, these individuals worked together and said, “We need to make Denver a better place to live.” So they created an organization, they collected funds for local charities, they coordinated relief efforts, they helped individuals who couldn’t find help. And obviously, they were on to something because we’re now up to 1,800 chapters worldwide. But it’s part of this united kinship that’s just bigger than we’d ever thought.

04:21 KR: I mean, obviously, a core part of United Way’s work is fundraising, but it’s using the volunteers and the knowledge that United Way has about the community and investing those resources back into partner agencies to create positive change. And it’s such an amazing organization because it relies on the collaboration of so many people to get the work done. And you’re right, I mean, you and I knew the workplace campaign, and United Way still has workplace campaigns. If you think about it, that ability to bundle all of these small biweekly contributions, those gifts turn into bigger gifts, which turns into millions, and then that translates into pretty powerful impact for the community. And sometimes I think people say, “But what can this amount truly do?” But your amount, with my amount, coupled with everybody else’s can have a great impact on the neighbors and individuals that live in our community. And I think that’s what makes it so exciting.

05:29 LJJ: Consumers is such a proud partner with United Ways in every one of our communities, and I think that’s what is so awesome. We are all across West Michigan. We serve members across Michigan. And if I live in Battle Creek, I can choose not only which United Way I want to partner with, but also I can choose based on mission, based on the causes that each United Way individually has. Tell us a little bit about the Kent County Heart of West Michigan United Way, especially on the focus of mission, because I think, right now, especially, Kim, when you talk about poverty, right now, there’s just nothing more important than trying to get people to be able to get up on their feet.

06:22 KR: Absolutely. And you’re right, the mission of United Way is here in Kent County, as we unite community resources. We’re looking to invest in solutions that reduce poverty here in West Michigan. And when we talk about poverty, and talk about the need out there… So I mentioned a little bit earlier that 37%, and that number is even higher when you’re talking black households in Michigan, 37%. These families are working. They are still struggling to meet their basic needs, and we, at United Way, call those individuals Alice households, which really stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. And really what that means is these households, they earn too much to be considered poor, but they don’t have enough to cover cost of living expenses. And so we have just seen this household … these households really hit even more. So these are the households who can’t now are struggling to pay rent, are struggling to cover utilities—really have to make the tough choices, could be between medicine and food. And we’ve just put together … it’s a really neat experience. I would kind of call it like a poverty simulation, and truly, could you ever understand what it’s like to live in poverty? But trying to help people understand a day in the life.

07:45 KR: And so it takes you through. It could be an individual, a senior couple or a family, and kind of walks you through what does that feel like when I’ve got to make the choice between groceries and transportation, and the car breaks down. And I think, during COVID, we’ve just seen that all of those resources with unemployment rising, and all of the changes have just required all of us to operate and think differently. And so these individuals who just might not have a lot of wiggle room in that are just even in more crisis because of that. And then really, from a racial equity standpoint, I mean, we know that COVID has disproportionately impacted black and Hispanic families much more. Some of the stats are hard to hear. One of them, I had just seen recently that one in six African-American children have experienced homelessness in Kent County. When you compare that to White children, that’s 160. So the differences are dramatic, and I think, as a community, we have to figure out systemically how we’re going to address some of these issues, because we’ve got to transform this community. We cannot leave individuals living in poverty.

08:53 LJJ: You know, Kim, you mentioned the simulation. Is that something that companies can look into for their employees to participate in?

09:02 KR: Thanks for asking, Lynne. No, it’s on our website, Heart of West Michigan United Way, so hwmuw.org. And the poverty simulator is right there. It’s just a really unique experience to give companies, and then employees, a different perspective. And again, we know we’re living virtual. There are many companies that don’t have their employees back to work. And how do you understand the true need? And we just developed this tool, helping, that people could understand a little bit better what the need is out there, and the difficult struggles people have to make every day to make ends meet.

09:38 LJJ: Well, Kim, I cannot thank you enough, number one, for the passion that you and your colleagues and all of the volunteers have around United Way, and the focus of really helping our communities thrive. Our employees are so engaged, and it’s something that we’re extremely proud to support. And come on any time. If there’s new things that you want to talk about and help us all understand how we can bring our communities to a higher level. That is awesome.

10:16 KR: Lynne, thank you. I mean, absolutely, your organization and so many… and this community have been so incredibly supportive, and I think as we’ve gone out and talked to some of the organizations and businesses, people are so kind and generous in this community. And I think they’ve really seen, through this crisis, the needs that are out there, and they’re willing to step up, and they’re willing to help. And we’re so grateful for you and agencies and organizations that are willing to say, “How can I help? How can I make a difference for this community?” And we couldn’t do it without you.

10:50 LJJ: Well, Kim, thank you so much for being with us today, and let us know, too. If there’s anybody that would like to get in touch, make sure that you connect with your local United Way. Kim is with Heart of West Michigan United Way. And we definitely need volunteers. We need passionate individuals who will help us succeed. So, thank you, Kim.

11:13 KR: Thanks, Lynne. I enjoyed talking to you today.

11:16 LJJ: Hey, if you have information or if you have a topic you’d like us to talk about, just send it our way. We’d like to thank Jake Esselink for his production skills today. And I hope everybody has an awesome week. Lynne Jarman-Johnson, Money, I’m Home, from finance to fitness with Consumers Credit Union.



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